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Palaces, though looted, top destination for curious in Iraq

MOSUL, Iraq—In one of the half dozen mansions on the sprawling grounds of this northern Iraqi city's presidential palace complex, a layer of discarded ice-cream wrappers has started to cover the rubble on the bombed building's floor.

Outside, the soft drink and snacks vendors are doing a great business, selling refreshments to the hundreds of Iraqis who have turned this once-forbidden piece of real estate into a giant public promenade.

Thoroughly looted in the chaos that followed the Iraqi regime's collapse last month, the palace now is the top destination for locals who want to gawk, snap pictures or simply luxuriate in an enclave once reserved for a select few.

"People come just to see," said Usam Ghanim, 21, an ice cream vendor who said every day he's been selling out his stock of vanilla ice cream on a stick—something he never did before the war. "It's like a park now."

Behind Ghanim, another vendor had set up a carnival-style attraction with a BB gun and a wall mounted with red and blue water balloons. For 250 dinars, about 12 cents, passers-by could take three shots. "They're happy," said Jabar Mohammed, 45, the vendor. "It's a holiday for them."

The palace complex once was a symbol of Saddam Hussein's excess, with its artificial lake, olive grove and vast array of luxurious residences.

American troops occupy the largest of the mansions, rendering it off limits to ordinary visitors. The rest of the campus is open to the public.

The majority of visitors one weekend afternoon were Kurds, who are a minority in the city of Mosul.

"It's a special occasion," said Shukur Sinjo, 35, an engineer who drove his family down from the heavily Kurdish city of Irbil for a picnic on the grounds. "It's a nice place. Look what he spent!"

"We come to gloat," said Qabis Sultan, 16, a Kurdish student from Mosul. "We really feel he's collapsed now."

But Sultan noted that there was another reason he and his friends had come up to the palace today: "It's free."

Economics also swayed Sarbat Mir Mohammed, 22, who brought three pedal-boats he used to rent at a lake in Mosul's main public park to the palace, where another residence is surrounded by an ornate man-made lake that serves as a moat: At the palace, he doesn't have to pay rent.

As teenagers swam and fishermen used hand-held nets to yank an ornamental fish from the water, Mohammed offered visitors a chance to rent a boat. A 10-minute cruise—long enough to go around the mansion, whose bombed-out rear once offered Baath party cronies, visiting dignitaries, and perhaps even Saddam himself a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape—cost about 13 cents.

Also doing good business was photographer Amir Yunus, 34, who snapped pictures of visitors for the equivalent of about 40 cents. He used to do the same at a waterfall outside of town, but he followed his customers here. "People are very happy," he said. "They didn't expect that one day they would enter these palaces. And they want to remember it with a picture."

At least a few visitors planned to stay longer than just an afternoon. Abdullah Omar, 42, moved into a small guards' dormitory four days after the fall of Mosul and has been there ever since. "I expect I'll be here a year," said Omar, sitting on the mattress he'd laid out on his room's empty floor. "There won't be any authorities for six months. And then they'll either give me the house or give me time to find a new one."

An unemployed former prisoner, Omar had been renting a house in a Mosul neighborhood for about $40 a month and said he planned to move his wife and his mother up to the palace soon. He said about a half dozen other families were living elsewhere in the dormitories.

Most of the visitors, though, said they wanted to take advantage of an easy access they didn't think would last.

"We came just to see it for ourselves," said Rashid Omar, 48, a Mosul city employee who was wandering up the building's spiraling staircase with his wife, Aruba Hassan, 40, and their daughter A'ae, 5. Before the war, he said, the family wouldn't even slow their car down near the walls of this complex north of downtown Mosul.

Now, he said, he knew why the regime was so secretive: "All presidents are supposed to have palaces. But they were not supposed to be like this."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-PALACE